How to be a Man, Though Female: Changing Sex in Medieval Romance
By Angela Jane Weisl
Medieval Feminist Forum, Vol. 45:2 (2009)
Introduction: In the Kinks’s song “Lola,” the narrator sings:
Girls will be boys and boys will be girls
It’s a mixed up muddled up shook up world
Except for Lola.
Well I’m not the world’s most masculine man
But I know what I am and I’m glad I’m a man
And so is Lola.
This may not seem an obvious paradigm for the examination of medieval literature, but gender confusion and transformation is a surprisingly popular topic, explored both metaphorically and literally in a variety of medieval texts. What appears to be a kind of metaphoric fantasy for Christine de Pizan in the Mutacion de Fortune, the dream of transgendering becomes literal in a number of additional works.
This transgendering itself takes multiple forms. If in the majority the transformation is either a performance or a temporary state, in two lesser-known examples, La Chanson d’Yde et Olive and Tristan de Nanteiul, it is permanent and complete. Thus the literature offers a full range of gender potential, suggesting that the gendered body is permeable and malleable, indeterminate in its categories. In more modern parlance, the romance implies that biology is far from being destiny.